The Object of Philosophy as the Universe - Ch. 4 of "What Is Philosophy?" by Jose Ortega y Gasset

What is Philosophy? - Ch 4 Knowledge of the Universe or the Multi-verse. Technical Problems and Practical Problems. Panlogic and Raison Vital.

Gasset begins chapter four by reminding the reader of his phenomenological method of "spiraling." Spiraling is a method of writing that takes many passes at the same idea, beginning with easier and simpler language and proceeding with more technical and precise formulations. So, here again, in chapter four, we ask the question, "What is Philosophy?" Later in the chapter he points out that to

properly philosophize one must dive deeply into the meanings of words and see how they fit together "subterraneously." 

In this chapter, Ortega essentially ask the question, is the universe rationally penetrable? Can we come to know the main "object" of philosophy, namely, what is the Universe, as such? He mentions Aristotle's famous line which begins all philosophy, "What is it?" 

Scientific Versus Philosophic Truth

He starts out in a sort of continuation of chapter three by speaking about the difference between "scientific truths" and "philosophical truths." He says that scientific truths are more exact but are insufficient. They cannot give a complete view of reality but are nested in many more fundamental assumptions about reality. "Its object [science] is partial, it is only a piece of the world and moreover it stems from many assumptions which it presents without more ado as good..." (Just expanding on this thought we could ask why science is good to pursue. Why is technology good? Doesn't technology always carry a dark side with it? For every good use are there not several bad uses of it?) But because of science's exactitude there is the temptation today to equate that with truth. "The popular tendency to consider exactitude as an attribute which affects the value of truth lacks both justification and meaning." Exactness, as a mode of truth, Gasset points out, only deals with quantitative realities. The aspect of reality which is subjected to have "parts" ie only the material reality. 

The interesting thing is, though, that as we begin to probe more deeply into this material reality physicists rely more and more on probabilities to explain things. (I think we can think here, for example, of the equations describing Quantum Mechanics. They are probability equations.) Gasset claims that these probabilities are more akin to "second-class truths...quasi truths." Therefore, they end up participating in philosophy to fill in the gaps that the material sciences cannot. The problem is, though, that these philosophies try to fill in the picture by extending, or continuing in the same direction as physics, and end up becoming a poor attempt at metaphysics. Gasset mentions the philosophies of Russell and Whitehead from the early 20th century. Gasset thinks that metaphysics should actually goin the opposite direction towards the locus of the individual man. Science can never be practiced outside of the scientist, who is a human being. And all human beings cannot help being philosophers whether they realize it or not because as a human being we desire a complete picture of reality, a complete picture which material science cannot give. (I am reminded here of Aristotle's dictum. "If one philosophizes, one philosophizes. If one does not philosophize, on philosophizes.") Ortega terms this return, not as metaphysics, but rather "ante-physical." "It is born out of life itself, and as we will see clearly, life cannot avoid philosophizing, no matter in how elemental a form." Philosophy is unescapable. 

The Object of Philosophy

Philosophy's object is the universe itself, as a totality, as well as the role of each individual reality within that totality. The problem is that it is hard to know what "everything" includes. What all will be included in this as we only can perceive parts of reality? Does everything include a multi-verse? And third, is the universe, as such, even knowable as a whole? The individual science does not do this, it clearly delineates its problem and its solutions or lack thereof. 

"It is only the philosopher who includes as an essential ingredient of his cognitive attitude the possibility that his object may turn out to be unknowable. And this means that philosophy is the sole science which takes the problem as it is presented..."

 Science, is then by nature, only part of the solution to the problems of the universe. And, Ortega points out, when we begin to see truth as being equated with those technical solutions we miss the a bigger reality, namely that man recognizes that problems exist and that man can approach them from a theoretical perspective. We miss what lies at the root of truth, the ability to philosophize about these

problems from generation to generation. We then have a bigger problem at this point when we only consider the practical necessities and their problems, and miss the philosophical and existential problems. We fall pray to Utilitarianism when we try to reduce man's bodily and practical problems to all of his problems, as though they could answer the deeper questions of life ... "by replacing the world's tranquility with the restlessness of problems" Rather, all worldviews or "theories" are attempts to give an answer to the inescapable theoretical and non-practical questions of life that every man faces. That is what philosophy is, to begin from the status of contingent things, better known to us, and then delve into the problem of why they exist at all, something that is a cause, a theory, an intellectual pursuit distant from us. 

"Why does this not happen to the animal, which undoubtedly has certain practical problems and is aware of them? Both kinds of problems have origins that are fundamentally different, and they cannot be reduced to any mutual status whatsoever." 

 Since the object of philosophy is the universe as such, as an absolute, then to contemplate it means that we have reached an attitude or mode of being that is purely contemplative and theoretical. This, as one may imagine, is difficult. 

"It is knowledge carried to its maximum effort, it is intellectual heroism. The philosopher leaves nothing beneath his feet to serve as a comfortable support, as unshakable terra firma. He renounces all previous security, puts himself into absolute peril, practices the sacrifice of all his ingenious beliefs, commits suicide as a live man in order to be reborn as if transfigured into pure exercise of the intellect." 

We are thus led to the question, is it even possible?  

 Is Philosophy's Central Question Answerable? 

Gasset mentions two possibilities in which the question about the totality of the universe would be unknowable. (1) Our capacity for the knowledge that is out there is limited, or (2) "...the world, the state of being, the Universe in itself, in its own texture, may be opaque to thought because in itself it may be irrational." To begin to figure things out we must start with what and how man knows at all. What are the general limitations on this? 

Yes - Gasset points out that the traditional Scholastic formulation of truth as, "adequatio intellectus et rei" has a very basic sense of truth that cannot be overlooked. Even if the conformity between one's knowledge and reality is not perfect, still there must be some conformity between the two. "...theadequatio between both terms must be mutual; there must be a coincidence between my thought and the thing, but this is possible only if the thing in itself coincides with the structure of my thought." We must be concerned then to show the ontological nature of both thought and being. What is the nature of my thoughts? What is the nature of being? What are their similarities and differences? If it is the case that being and thought are part of the same fabric, then intelligibility (or the ability for something to be contemplated intellectually) should pervade even the farthest reaches of being, even though that I cannot directly perceive. 

"For me, this is a classic example of what I call intellectual utopism, that is to say, the made faith that thought, when it wishes to penetrate the real at almost any spot - u-topos- on its infinite body will find that body transparent and coinciding with thought itself. If this is so, I need not wait to find the unknown real; having anticipated it, I know how it will behave."

No - There are some who go to the other extreme in saying that nothing about the world is intelligible or rational, knowledge is impossible. Or others who remain in a stance of skepticism about metaphysics unnecessarily (Positivism is mentioned). But then there is the middle way in which Gasset is advocating for. 

"Raison Vital" - A Middle Way in Understanding the Universe's Intelligibility

Gasset mentions that there are obviously different disciplines and forms of truth, some more rational and some less. Mathematics is, some would argue, purely rational in nature. Then there are other disciplines which begin to deal with embodied rationalities. "If we go from mathematics on to more complicated things- physical matter, organic life, psychic life, social life, historical life- the proportion of irrationality or of impenetrability to pure thinking increases..." He basically says that as somethingbecomes more embodied in matter the further it moves from rationality. And so Gasset is going to take a middle road in his approach towards the knowability of the universe in the philosophic endeavor. He does not side with the skeptics and Positivists who claim that the universe cannot be rationally penetrated, but also is weary of the over confidence of previous metaphysical systems which seemed to claim direct knowledge of the universe itself. 

"... But also it would hardly be intelligent to interpret the definition of philosophy as a doctrine of the Universe, and the tendency to construct a maximum of philosophic corpus as an ingenuous lapse into the old metaphysics." 

Rather, we must develop a "vital reason" which precedes in searching and penetrating the universe through rational inquiry and philosophy, hopeful in its intelligibility, hopeful in the possibility of metaphysics. These are the most meaningful questions man can ask, and the "better part" of life.